Poetry of the Great Australian Nightmare: Rae Desmond Jones reviews The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence

The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence, Puncher & Wattmann Poetry, 2011.

Anthony Lawrence and Friend (image courtesy of Manning Clark House – http://manningclark.org.au)

In The Welfare Of My Enemy, Anthony Lawrence’s vision moves back to the early poet, Barcroft Boake, who described the ominous quality of the Australian landscape  in 1891:

East and backward pale faces turning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

Gaunt arms stretched with a voiceless yearning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

Oft in the fragrant hush of nooning

Hearing again their mother’s crooning,

Wrapt for aye in a dreamful swooning –

That’s how the dead men lie!

‘Where the Dead Men Lie’ Barcroft Boake (1891)

by contrast however, Lawrence creates his vision of the uneasy dead within the Australian landscape in language that is deliberate, flat, detached and cold. The poems lack a title: each poem has a six cornered asterisk, as though to emphasise the questionable identity of the subjects: victims, perpetrators, Policemen, grieving relatives, friends, or simply those who became ‘absent’. Many poems are dramatic monologues, but they don’t vary much in tone according to the personality of the speaker. All are written in irregular two line stanzas using mostly half rhymes, which add to the discordant unspeakable absence:

.

Children don’t say his name or try to find him.

Dad is not a word they use. His absence is a thin

.

Erratic line through the years. At five, his own

Father left, and never returned. Call it a pattern.

.

An understated prosaic tone effectively evokes the emptiness of grief and absence, while it serves to layer the detached charm of a manipulative murderer:

.

No joke. She thought the game was about passing time.

You show your hand and you say the words. It’s lame

.

But she looked so pretty as she laughed and ate

The bullshit. Rock, Paper, Scissors, Dynamite.

.

Even when we pulled off the road and she knew that “later”

Was now a word from the past: Dynamite, Scissors Rock, paper.

.

In writing on these themes, Lawrence may be deploying ideas similar to those that inspired Professor Ross Gibson when he wrote (in prose) about  the ‘horror stretch’ of road between Rockhampton and Mackay in Queensland. For Gibson, these Badlands ‘offer a no-go area, a dumping ground for those voices, thoughts, memories, grim realities that contemporary, “civilised” Australia would prefer to forget as it seeks accommodation, a sense of belonging, of “wellness” in what remains for many an alien landscape.’ (Reference Huxley, J., Badlands, Interview with Ross Gibson, SMH November 26 2002 http://www.smh.com.au/articles/2002/11/25/1038173697682.html ). Australia has many known dumping grounds of this type: the Beaumont Children, the Truro Murders, the Belanglo State Forest.

Despite the flatness of tone, Lawrence is not writing journalese. He actively interrogates his speakers and their place in the environment. Judgement is left to the reader. While grief and loss, horror and brutality abound, this is not James Elroy in verse:

.

He went for a swim. He’s not been seen since.

.

You think of your own place in the world

how flimsy your grip on the earth really is. it boils

.

down to a random act, an accident where nature conceals

your fall, or something planned – they steal

.

more than your life – your absence becomes the absence

of those who inhabit the place you’ve fenced

.

The Welfare Of My Enemy does not offer a reason for these absences, although Lawrence presents us with compelling portraits of perpetrators as intent on control and power over the powerless. He may therefore indirectly support Gibson’s thesis, that the origin of ‘atmosphere’ in these spaces lies in the treatment by the invaders of indigenous people who remain both absent and present. Such ambitious poetry remorselessly takes the reader into the minds of the victims, the survivors, the perpetrators. To Lawrence, layers of history permeate the landscape and the earth. The author may be invisible but in this work he is not dead. At a time when poets and writers often concern themselves with poetry and the process of writing this is substantial – and present. Powerful stuff.

Rae Desmond Jones

———————————————————————-

Rae Desmond Jones is a major Australian poet. His first book was Orpheus With A Tuba, Makar Press, 1973. His latest book is Thirteen Poems from the Dead, Polar Bear Press 2011. There has been lots of poetry in between.

9 thoughts on “Poetry of the Great Australian Nightmare: Rae Desmond Jones reviews The Welfare Of My Enemy by Anthony Lawrence

  1. This is a fine review, detailed and responsive to the subject, form and the poet’s intentions.
    The quotes illustrate the points made by the reviewer and give us a feeling for the book’s atmosphere. I have been reading this new book of Lawrence’s ‘The Welfare Of My Enemy’ for about three weeks now and it gets better each time I open it. It’s a challenge and an important addition to our poetry. It’s a great book. I agree with Rae Desmond Jones in his summation: “At a time when poets and writers often concern themselves with poetry and the process of writing this is substantial – and present. Powerful stuff.”

  2. A fine and justified review of a stunning book. I have read Lawrence’s book four times, and also the accompanying exegesis from his doctoral studies. The work mines the mind, harps at our consciousness and haunts the nights – just as a missing person may. What is also extraordinary, is the powerful manner in which Lawrence has given himself to engaging with this relentless topic. For a poet to take that dangerous long walk into unearthed space is breath taking. This book is a poetic, psychological and physical experience of a type I have not seen before. It deserves awards and multiple readings. Thank you, Anthony. Cecilia White.

  3. Rae
    thanks for the marvellous engaging review. And thanks too for Bob’s, Cecilia’s and Lyndon’s comments.

    Anthony

  4. As I read Cecilla’s carefully written comments I realized I jumped the gun. I used to think Allen Ginsberg’s ‘First thought, best thought’ was a workable governing principle. I don’t think it works for me at all. As William Deresiewicz comments in his review of Ginsberg’s selected interviews ‘Spontaneous Mind’ : ‘No heed to the high-modernist idea of poem as patiently constructed artifact, but an equally strenuous discipline, for it was only with hours of daily meditation that he maintained his wide-open path from mind to breath.’ Well, I’m not thinking of Anthony’s new book here, I’m thinking of my comments: I just fired off lines from the top of my head, not good enough! So even on the ‘first thought, best thought,’ level you can’t just dash off a quick response without careful consideration. It’s interesting to think about: after Cecillia’s comment on ‘The Welfare Of My Enemy’, I realized my comment was rushed and quite shallow. I want to say the book is deeply compelling, haunting and brilliantly written, it’s the best long sequence I’ve read for years. It’ a book that you can return to again and again, each time another level of meaning reveals itself, lines appear that you read the first or second time though, but they sing anew on each reading, (though the lines aren’t Anthony’s usual lyric music, they are measured, sometimes as cold as they are required to be in context, and as the persona transmogrifies into yet another shape, the reader has to take up a new stance, a new threat, a new way of reading. It’s a great book.

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